Little is coherent in the hurried flurry that is "The Rise of Skywalker," but one thing is very clear by the end: There was never a plan for this new "Star Wars" trilogy.
In the beginning, there was one captain of this ship – George Lucas – and with the help of a few perennially under-appreciated collaborators (justice for Irvin Kershner), his vision was brought to life in the original trilogy. Years later, say what one will about Lucas’ story choices and screenwriting limitations, but there’s no doubt the prequel trilogy was again his vision, that there were two hands on the steering wheel, guiding and connecting the films.
That one pair of hands was traded out for at least three fighting for the wheel: the nostalgic crowd-pleaser J.J. Abrams, the subversive and challenging Rian Johnson, and the studio wanting the biggest bang for its brand’s buck. Maybe there is a galaxy far, far away where the two creatively disparate directors made three movies that gelled together, guided by a studio with something mapped out beyond where to dump the box office billions.
Unfortunately, it’s not this one. In this universe, viewers get a final installment, and a trilogy in totality, that devolves into an ugly storytelling custody battle and veers in so many constantly different competing directions that it guarantees only one: down. So it shouldn’t surprise that, instead of a satisfyingly smooth landing, "Rise of Skywalker" swerves into a cinematic asteroid field: occasionally exciting, sure, but mostly rocky, nonsensical and exhaustingly chaotic.
Cramming in enough plotting and commotion to fill another trilogy all on its own, "Rise of Skywalker" follows Rey, Finn, Poe and company as they race across the galaxy to find and defeat a new foe: the Final Order, a slightly angstier version of the First Order from the past two films, built in secret and led by an inexplicably not-dead Emperor Palpatine. The script – from Abrams and Chris Terrio, with story help from original director Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly – hand-waves away any real explanation for his return; apparently getting thrown down a reactor shaft and exploding not once but twice just doesn’t have the impact it used to.
In fairness, it’s hard to make time for explanations when, in addition to telling a new "Star Wars" chapter, Abrams and company try to U-turn the entire last film and shove in what feels very much like their own second movie. Indeed, "Rise of Skywalker" takes the handoff from "The Last Jedi" … and promptly pops the ball and goes back home to play a different game instead. Character development – such as Poe’s humbling – is undone, while moments and themes are undercut or purposefully slapped down. New characters are rewritten and repurposed as set dressing, and massive revelations are unrevealed – most notably Rey’s lineage, taking a newly opened-up universe and confining it once more to the past, regardless of logic. The result plays like a script written by that one guy in the improv comedy group who takes over any scene and, regardless of context, makes it about what he wants.
"Star Wars" fans disgruntled about Johnson’s intriguing, if sometimes imperfect, choices in "Last Jedi" might be pleased watching such a rebuke. The reality, though, is "The Last Jedi" still happened and still exists. Choosing to ignore such significant swathes of it leaves the audience with characters that are either static or just don’t really make sense, and a story trying to draw and erase with the same hand at the same time.
That’s the true sin of "Rise of Skywalker." This is far from the first movie to retcon a previous film (heck, "Terminator" just did it for about the third time just last month), but if you’re going to delete one part of a story, you better replace it with something at least on par. And "The Rise of Skywalker" instead leaves a loud, cacophonous void that, sure, fails as a sequel and as the final piece of a collective, but fails even more significantly on its own storytelling merits.
Abrams and company’s script doesn’t so much have a story as it does clunky ramshackle of commotion seemingly rewriting itself as it goes along to find excuses to move forward, go somewhere new or dig itself out of a hole – quite literally. Our heroes need to find an ancient unknown Sith planet, but to do that, they need a glowing triangle called a wayfinder. And to find that, they need to find a dagger. But they don’t actually need the dagger, just its clue – but to use the clue, they need to find a translation. And so on and so forth – only to backtrack to the so on after the fetch quest goes wrong, only to reveal that they didn’t really have to do any of it in the first place. It’s not cohesive storytelling; it’s a tediously repetitive video game – even complete with a boss-like serpent who, after it’s defeated, knocks down a door so our players can move onto to the next level.
This approach to plot is nothing new for Abrams, who excels at painting over a script’s cracks and holes with a shark’s mentality: If it stops moving, it’ll die. In his last "Star Wars" jaunt, Abrams’ giddy momentum, flashy "gee-whiz"-infused action sensibilities and keen fingers-to-pulse emotional manipulation – not to mention his excellent casting sense, probably his true calling next to marketing exec – hit the audience with a seductive sensory high that made pesky things like logic and coherence drop away.
Unfortunately for "Rise of Skywalker," that high wears off quickly – if it even hits at all. Between the insistence on retconning the old film and sprinting through an excess of new story beats and narrative detours, there’s just too much obvious clutter to hide behind weaponized nostalgia and zippy visuals, too much plot to untangle (and re-tangle) to take a breath and feel anything with our characters.
The result is a movie where the audience is constantly trying to remind themselves what the characters are trying to accomplish and how this impacts them or the story. And with this script, those questions tend to lead to more questions – like seriously, how is Palpatine back? What was his actual plan – with Rey or apparently ever? Where did that one character’s lightsaber come from – and no, you don’t get to introduce an element out of nowhere and immediately pretend it’s important or meaningful. What did Finn have to tell Rey anyway? (Spoiler alert: We’ll never know, because he never ends up saying it, making that subplot totally pointless.) Is the Force just all-powerful, do-it-all story caulk now? Also: Hux? Just … Hux?
It’s a shame because lost in this sloppy final chapter of a disjointed trilogy is a tremendous cast and some really intriguing characters. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren made for a fascinatingly tortured, conflicted villain, while Daisy Ridley’s heartfelt performances gave the films something resembling a consistent emotional throughline. Together they made for compelling sparring partners – both literally and thematically. Unfortunately, the third act of "Rise of Skywalker" rushes them both through some wild character development, resulting in some laughable turns and unsatisfying conclusions.
Meanwhile, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and John Boyega’s Finn still make a insanely charismatic duo, providing much needed comedic snap and spark through the gunky plotting. "Rise of Skywalker" even tries to give them both some depth – or at least new depth after abandoning the last film’s work – with Poe reconnecting with an old cohort (Abrams’ "Felicity" star Keri Russell, mostly masked the entire time) and Finn meeting a fellow former Stormtrooper. But as with most developments in this final chapter, there’s no time allowed for these beats to breathe or these moments to have any impact. It’s just more plot to churn through, a step to be immediately forgotten en route to the next step.
And that’s the grand tragedy of "The Rise of Skywalker": For the epic conclusion to a blockbuster trilogy, as well as to a decades-spanning story that’s meant so much for so many, almost nothing here feels like it matters. Abrams can assemble some zippy, base-level propulsive thrills – though one desert chase is such a riff off "Mad Max: Fury Road" that Immortan Joe should consider lawyering up – and impressive images dripping with meaning, but meaning nothing with no coherent story and ill-served characters behind them.
The big moments rarely register as big moments, and when they do, the film moves to cancel them out as if "The Rise of Skywalker" is afraid you'll remember this movie. A beloved character dies in a moment that should further drive Rey’s internal conflict, deciding between the fate seemingly chosen for her or the fate she chooses … only for the character to be resurrected a minute later with the laziest possible answer. Another character’s mind is erased … only to have no impact on the story and become essentially restored by the end of the act. Even Kylo Ren’s helmet gets needlessly resurrected – this time with red highlights – because, for this movie, iconography means more than actual meaning.
In that case, perhaps Palpatine’s return makes all too fitting, embodying everything about this exhaustingly Teflon-coated finale: an icon brought back not because it makes sense but because of a failed disinterest in new ideas and an unflappable attachment to the past, even if it undoes that past in the process. Forget undoing its own stakes, or the story of "Last Jedi"; "The Rise of Skywalker" goes back to invalidating the original trilogy. Sorry, Vader; your sacrifice, the emotional climax of the original films, was a waste because Abrams wanted to cosplay "Return of the Jedi" again.
In the end, for all of the work Abrams and company put into resurrecting the past and bringing back all of its icons for a final bow, "The Rise of Skywalker" leaves behind the most essential part of the first "Star Wars" all those decades ago, the part that truly made one farm boy’s adventure into an epic, one man’s vision into an inspiration: a simple and imaginative story with good characters, well told.
"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker": ** out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.